September 2013 | Nate Pedersen

Ferguson Smith, Spycatcher, Passes Away

Ferguson Smith, famous British spycatcher during the Cold War, passed away this month. He was 98 years old. The Telegraph described Smith in his obituary as "a man with a rigorous attention to detail, quiet manner and dry sense of humour."

One of Smith's greatest triumphs was busting the Portland Spy Ring, a group of Soviet spies active in Britain in the 1950s. The Ring used the sale of antiquarian books to transport classified information. Two important members of the Ring were Peter Kroger and his wife Lona, who masqueraded as antiquarian book dealers. Peter sold rare books from their home in Ruislip, a suburban section of northwest London. Smith discovered that the Krogers were passing "microdots" that reproduced highly classified information in miniature.  The Krogers including these microdots in sales of antiquarian books to a fellow spy named Gordon Lonsdale, who would then sent the microdots to the Soviet Union accompanying letters to his supposed wife. When Smith infiltrated the Kroger bungalow, he discovered massive amounts of spying equipment, fake passports, large sums of cash, and a longe-range transmitter linked to Moscow.

Smith's discovery was heralded as a great espionage coup and prevented the further loss of an array of classified military information about Britain.

The Krogers were arrested, imprisoned, and eventually traded with the Soviet Union for a British civilian in their custody.

(As an interesting aside, Peter Kroger knew Frank Doel, the antiquarian bookseller in London who inspired the novel and film 84 Charring Cross Rd.)

Smith's distinguished career as a spyhunter continued with other high-profile catches: George Blake, considered the most dangerous of the Soviet spies in Britain, and John Vassall. Smith retired in 1972 and lived out his days comfortably with his wife in Surrey.